It’s that time of the year again. The month of October is upon us. So to celebrate, we at Full Circle Cinema put together another curated, month-long series with Screen Screams. This year, we will be checking our clocks as we wait in anticipation for the forbidden delight we call “the midnight movie”. And with midnight movies comes a variety of projects that are perhaps too niche for the masses. Today, we will look at one of the most infamous “in name only” sequels ever made: 1990’s Troll 2.
It is awfully tempting to agree with the consensus that Troll 2 is “so bad it’s good”. While it markets itself as a sequel to the 1986 film Troll, there are no trolls whatsoever. In fact, the word “troll” does not exist in the script’s vocabulary. Furthermore, the performances clearly indicate a director who could not get past his language barrier. How else does one explain the oddly emphasized line deliveries? But saying that Troll 2 is merely “so bad it’s good” does a disservice to the things it does well. In fact, it does enough things well that I’m willing to defend it as a solid creature feature. And no, I’m not evaluating it on a curve.
A large part of its success comes from the willingness to lean into paranoia from a child’s perspective. The film centers on Joshua Waits (Michael Stephenson), a young boy about to go on a vacation with his family. Upon hearing the news that they will go to a small town named Nilbog, he quickly expresses his disapproval. This is because the spirit of his late grandfather Seth (Robert Ormsby) recently warned him of the dangers of Nilbog. Specifically, it is full of goblins that can turn humans into plants with their food. Like most stories centering on paranoia, Joshua’s fears turn out to be true. Not only do goblins populate much of Nilbog, all of them have the ability to transform into humans. So for those who are less cautious, it is easy for them to fall under the trap of the goblins.
What makes these early sections work is that you feel the rising tension right alongside Joshua. Director Claudio Fragasso – credited under the pseudonym Drake Floyd – crafts a rather unsettling visual style. This largely takes the form of wide-angle lenses, which tend to warp information at the edges of the frame. So whenever there is a human subject in the middle, the world around it looks misshapen. Undoubtedly the best showcase of this is the drive towards Nilbog, where the image distortion reflects Joshua’s discomfort with the situation. Also in the car scene’s favor is that it houses a dream sequence in which Joshua leaks out green liquid and turns into a tree. So when it doesn’t use lenses to play around with style, it is able to conjure up wild imagery.
Wild imagery, as it turns out, is something Troll 2 never has in short supply. The dream sequence with Joshua is extreme as it is, and yet the movie manages to top itself on multiple occasions. An early highlight involves a woman drinking a “broth” and transforming into green sludge. To make things even more grotesque, this transformation takes place through different phases, with each one more inhuman than the last. But perhaps the most memorable example is when you get to a full glimpse of a human-tree hybrid. In addition to the person being immobile, branches appear where human limbs would be. While the spectacle is ridiculous, the filmmakers commit so much to the idea that it bounces around to being creepy.
On the level of tone, Troll 2 has the goods, but how does it hold up on a narrative level? Well, this is where all the deep cracks start to appear. For whatever reason, Fragasso’s screenplay glosses over the interesting lore and dwells over the obvious details. In the case of the former, you get a prologue that covers some of what the goblins can do. But since it’s told as a bedtime story, it’s not like it dives deep into the goblin society. In the case of the latter, it is most apparent with the family discovering the truth behind Nilbog. Anyone with a peanut brain should be able to figure out why the town is called Nilbog of all things. Despite that, this film treats it like a revelation that only Alfred Hitchcock could come up with.
Troll 2 is also too fixated on crafting strange characters for its own good. Sure, this inhuman approach to actions and dialogue makes sense for the shapeshifting goblins. In fact, without this approach, we would not have the perfection that is Creedence Leonore Gielgud (Deborah Reed), a witch that serves as the queen of the goblins. If there is any character that effortlessly walks the fine line between horror and comedy, it’s her. But when this direction is also apparent in the central family, you know something has gone awry. Whether it’s Joshua’s father Michael (George Hardy) or Joshua’s sister Holly (Connie Young), they frequently say and do things that are miles away from having a human touch.
It doesn’t help either that the performances amplify the lack of nuance for the human characters. With Fragasso’s weak grasp of the English language in place, the actors have no choice to tackle their roles in the most basic ways. On one end, you have Young, who conveys happiness, disinterest, and fear with the exact same glazed expression. Furthermore, she spends most of the time reciting her lines as if she was reading a book to a class of kindergarten students. On the other end, you have Margo Prey – playing Joshua’s mother Diana – who spends the entire second half with her eyes bugged out. While one could argue this fits with the character’s heightened emotions, it’s so persistent that it feels like you’re seeing a mask and not a real face.
All told, Troll 2 is a deeply weird product that veers between incompetence and excellence. Some people have used the phrase “best worst movie” to describe the film reaching depths so low it’s hard not to be amazed. Fittingly enough, the 2009 documentary that covers the film’s production and legacy uses this phrase for its title. I, however, prefer to use that phrase to describe the film doing things that are either the absolute best or the absolute worst. However you feel like processing the movie, there’s no denying how much of a rollercoaster ride it is. All a midnight movie needs to do to qualify as a hit is to put its small audience under its spell. And God help me if that’s not what Troll 2 does for its entire 95-minute runtime. – Mark Tan
Troll 2 is available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.
The film stars Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, Margo Prey, Connie Young, Robert Ormsby, and Deborah Reed.